There sure has been a lot of talk this year about the number of teams tanking, and it’s a fair complaint for fans to make. Nine teams failed to win 30 games this year for the first time since 2010, which means almost a third of the league was much more concerned with accruing as many ping-pong balls as possible than actually winning games for the fans paying all that money to come see them play.
There are, of course, reasons for this.
When the Philadelphia 76ers were deep in the throes of their multiyear tank-fest, all Sam Hinkie got was grief. Not only were the Sixers earning high draft picks by playing some truly putrid basketball, but they were using those high draft picks on injured and international players to insure that they would be bad again the next season. Joel Embiid and Dario Saric were the result of an 18-win season. Ben Simmons was the grand prize for a ten-win season two years later. Markelle Fultz was drafted following a 28-win campaign.
As those players matured and healed and found their way to the U.S. at essentially the same time, the Sixers transformed into an Eastern Conference powerhouse almost overnight. Ben Simmons probably will be an MVP someday. Joel Embiid will never not be an All-Star.
The lesson, though, is that Philadelphia is now legitimately good after a brief half-decade of complete and utter misery. The Process works, and every NBA team has figured that out. You either compete for a title or you bottom out to restock your talent. There’s little advantage to living in NBA purgatory, and this year was a perfect storm for coming to that realization. As such, there were more have-nots in the league than usual.
Only part of the ubiquitous tanking in the league this year came a result of figuring out The Process for themselves, however. With lottery reform on the horizon for next season, the 2017-18 campaign was the last opportunity for bad teams to reap the rewards of lopsided lottery odds for crummy teams.
Back in September, the league announced lottery reform that will apply first to the 2019 NBA Draft. Moving forward, the three worst teams in the league all will have just a 14 percent chance at the top selection instead of odds ranging from 15.6 percent (for the third-worst record) to 25 percent (for the worst record). Every other team in the lottery will see its odds for that #1 selection rise. The team with the sixth-worst record, for example, will have 15 percent better odds of landing a top-three pick through this new system.
In spreading around lottery odds, the idea obviously is to dissuade teams from tanking. Whether or not that works, the changes certainly made for a mad dash to the bottom in this, the last draft year based on the old system.
The Draft Class
That mad dash was especially pressing considering the level of elite talent expected to spill forth from this draft. Already some are calling the 2019 NBA Draft a relatively weak one in terms of prospects, where the 2018 crop has potentially franchise-altering players slotted to fall eight or nine picks into the lottery.
DeAndre Ayton and Luka Doncic obviously are the crown jewels of the class, but Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter headed into the season rated even higher than those two guys. Mo Bamba, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Mikal Bridges all should make their new franchises quite happy, as well.
These players have their flaws, but the consensus is that a lot of them could be really good someday. Scouts are less sure about Zion Williamson, apparently.
This all helped create a perfect storm for the 2018 tank-fest that drew so much attention from the media all season long. It’s easy to understand why so many organizations are bottoming out while it’s still lucrative to do so.
If the new lottery format plays out in a way that bad teams are not rewarded for their failures, especially early in its implementation, this type of thing likely will happen a lot less often. Parity is good for the league, and hopefully these teams bottoming out can find their way back to respectability closer to sooner than later because nobody wants to watch this many bad teams indefinitely.
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